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50 Ella Baker Quotes on Civil Rights, Activism, and More

Published on May 7, 2020 7:24 AM EST
50 Ella Baker Quotes on Civil Rights, Activism, and More

An early civil rights activist, Ella Baker is an inspiration whose work helped put the 1960s civil rights movement in motion. The Ella Baker quotes featured below show her opinions on activism, the fight for civil rights, and prominent civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. 

What have you learned about the civil rights movement? 

Much of Ella Baker’s activism came from being the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She mentored many prominent figures through this organization, including Rosa Parks and Stokely Charmichael.

50 Ella Baker Quotes on Civil Rights, Activism, and More

The SNCC played a significant role in organizing a variety of different prominent civil rights events including the March on Washington in 1963. Baker spoke out about civil rights, racism, and sexism, whether within American culture or in the civil rights movement itself. 

Learn more about Ella Baker’s life and career as an activist below.  And don’t forget to also check out these Martin Luther King Jr quotes celebrating hope and dignity.

Ella Baker quotes about civil rights

1. “Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it.” – Ella Baker

2. “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.” – Ella Baker

3. “Singing alone is not enough; we need schools and learning.” – Ella Baker

4. “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed… It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” – Ella Baker

5. “I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight.” – Ella Baker

6. “Even if segregation is gone, we will still need to be free; we will still have to see that everyone has a job. Even if we can all vote, but if people are still hungry, we will not be free.” – Ella Baker

7. “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all of mankind.” – Ella Baker

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8. “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” – Ella Baker

Powerful Ella Baker quotes

9. “In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” – Ella Baker

10. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” – Ella Baker

11. “Give light, and people will find the way.” – Ella Baker

12. “The struggle is eternal. The tribe increases. Somebody else carries on.” – Ella Baker

13. “This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.” – Ella Baker

Also check out these powerful civil rights quotes striding towards equality.

Ella Baker quotes about being an activist

14. “I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others.” – Ella Baker

15. “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.” – Ella Baker

16. “I didn’t break the rules, but I challenged the rules.” – Ella Baker

17. “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence.” – Ella Baker

18. “I’ve never credited myself with a professional life. But, basically, it has been that.” – Ella Baker

19. “In ’32 we organized the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League and had some degree of success in terms of establishing stores and certainly buying clubs in various sections of the country. I was designated as – I don’t know what exactly – I believe it was director. I’m not sure what it was, but it had to do with getting out the necessary mail and all of that – organization.” – Ella Baker

20. “There is also the danger in our culture that because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.” – Ella Baker

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21. “I began to feel that my greatest sense of success would raise the level of masses of people, rather than the individual being accepted by the Establishment. So, this kind of personal thinking, combined with, say, even the little bit more radical thinking – because at one time the pacifist movement was a very radical concept.” – Ella Baker

22. “I think personally, I’ve always felt that the Association (NAACP) got itself hung-up in what I call its legal successes. Having had so many outstanding legal successes, it definitely seemed to have oriented its thinking in the direction that the way to achieve was through the courts.” – Ella Baker

23. “My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.” – Ella Baker

24. “One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” – Ella Baker

25. “I had known, number one, that there would never be any role for me in the leadership capacity with SCLC. Why? First, I’m a woman. Also, I’m not a minister. And second, I am a person that feels that I have to maintain some degree of personal integrity and be my own barometer of what is important and what is not.” – Ella Baker

26. “With the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control.” – Ella Baker

27. “Because our children had had the privilege of growing up where they’d raised a lot of food. They were never hungry. They could share their food with people. And so, you share your lives with people.” – Ella Baker

Ella Baker quotes on upbringing

28. “I was born in Norfolk, Virginia. I began school there, the first year of public school. When I was 7, the family shifted back to North Carolina. I grew up in North Carolina; had my schooling through the college level in North Carolina.” – Ella Baker

29. “I went to what is known as, and was at that time, too, Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. In fact, because of the lack of public school facilities, I began there. I began boarding school at the high school level; in fact, a year below the high school level.” – Ella Baker

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30. “Both my parents came from North Carolina, in Warren County. My mother had a feeling that there was greater culture in North Carolina than obtained in Norfolk, Virginia, plus the fact she just didn’t like the lowland-lying climate there.” – Ella Baker

31. “My mother didn’t feel very satisfied about the English background that I had received in the public schools in Littleton. So, she insisted that I take a year under the high school level. So, I was in boarding school nine years.” – Ella Baker

32. “One of the stories that dominates our family literature was the fact that my maternal grandfather contracted for – I don’t know under what terms – but, for a large section of the old slave plantation. He established himself – sisters and brothers, cousins, etc. on fifty- and sixty-acre plots.” – Ella Baker

33. “I came out of a family background that involved itself with people.” – Ella Baker

34. “His name was Michael R. Ross. I’ve never known what the “R” was for. He died, however, before I was 7. But he and I seemed to have had quite a nice relationship. He always called me grandlady, and he’d always talk to you as a person rather than as a child. So, I would go with him for his routes in his horse and buggy. So, my memory of him is pretty sharp, plus it has been accentuated by the stories that come out of the family.” – Ella Baker

Don’t forget to also check out these protest and activism quotes to inspire you to action.

Ella Baker quotes about Martin Luther King Jr.

35. “Martin wasn’t one to buck forces too much.” – Ella Baker

36. “King was one of the two young ministers – and you know how directly oriented the Negro community still is towards the minister as the leader.” – Ella Baker

37. “Unless you had developed a certain independence of value, a certain independent system of value, a system of values that was independent from this middle-class drive for recognition. This has been my explanation of part of [Martin Luther King] general role. So, he accepted this without too much resistance. In fact, none that I could ever see, and at certain points I was close enough to see something.” – Ella Baker

38. “In your short stay in Atlanta, I’m sure you saw that there was great competition between Martin’s father and John Wesley Dobbs in terms of family status. Out of a background like that, the business of becoming a chairman of an important movement or a movement that symbolizes a certain amount of prestige is something you don’t resist easily.” – Ella Baker

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39. “I think you can find some rationales for that if we look at the background out of which he came. Martin had come out of a highly competitive, black, middle-class background.” – Ella Baker

40. “Martin wasn’t, basically, the kind of person – certainly at the stage that I knew him closest – wasn’t the kind of person you could engage in dialogue with, certainly, if the dialogue questioned the almost exclusive rightness of his position.” – Ella Baker

Ella Baker quotes commentating on the civil rights movement

41. “I don’t think that the leadership of Montgomery was prepared to capitalize, let’s put it, on the projection that had come out of the Montgomery situation. ” – Ella Baker

42. “I didn’t have any close relationship with him because, although (William Edward Burghardt) DuBois may not have been as egocentric. He certainly was not the easiest person to approach. I think, certainly, those of us who were younger sort of respected that in terms of his preoccupation with deep thoughts. So, I made no effort to establish any relationship with him. However, he was in and out then.” – Ella Baker

43. “[Walter White] was also one of the best lobbyists of the period.” – Ella Baker

44. “I think that Walter’s [White] whole career is indicative of a large degree of egocentricity. Perhaps to be generous, you would have to say that he was a product of his period, which was that of self-projection in the name of organizational interest.” – Ella Baker

45. “I don’t know, except that the only simple answer, I think, is that SCLC had never really developed an organizing technique. I’ve always characterized the difference in saying that they went in for mobilization. And, to be honest, in terms of the historical facts, their mobilization usually was predicated upon some effort at organizing by someone else. And, at this stage, it was largely SNCC.” – Ella Baker

46. “One of the particular things that impressed me was one visitor (of NAACP) – I think it was – it wasn’t the Prime Minister of England. We were located then on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, up several flights of rickety stairs, and he came all the way up those stairs to see Walter [White], largely because of certain kinds of impact, I think, that the Association seemingly was having.” – Ella Baker

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47. “I believe, the NAACP began to try to organize parents of Negro children to file petitions with the boards of education regarding the integration of the school system. You had some very severe economic reprisals against people in Mississippi and in South Carolina. So, in order to try to help to meet some of the physical needs and the economic needs of people in Clarendon County [SC] who had been displaced from the land, and otherwise, and in certain sections of Mississippi, we organized in New York City something called “In Friendship”.” – Ella Baker

48. “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was more politically oriented. Part and parcel of the initial SNCC efforts was to not only go in for voter registration, but for political participation.” – Ella Baker

49. “I think that Walter’s [White] whole career is indicative of a large degree of egocentricity. Perhaps to be generous, you would have to say that he was a product of his period, which was that of self-projection in the name of organizational interest.” – Ella Baker

50. “I think, to be honest, sort of emanated from the initial work of somebody else instead of SCLC. If you take Albany; I don’t know whether you recall how Albany got started. There were two little guys who went up there first. One was Cordell Hull who was then in his teens – not Cordell Hull – Cordell Reagan, who came out of the Nashville movement, and Charles Sherrod, who came out of the Richmond, Virginia, movement.” – Ella Baker

When’s the last time you stood up for what you believed in? 

Ella Baker’s 50-year career as an activist encouraged millions of Americans to understand the power of their voice, especially students. The SNCC was a way for students in the 1960s and 1970s nationwide to make a difference within the civil rights movement and find strength in numbers. In the SNCC, Baker also helped many women get involved in the civil rights movement. 

No matter your age, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background, know that you have the power to make a difference. Your voice matters, and chances are there are thousands, if not millions of people around the globe that feel the same way you do. 

Is there an inspiring Ella Baker quote that you have to share with your loved one? Let us know your favorites below!

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